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I think I’ve earned my stripes as a cynical Christian. I’m the first to criticize hypocrisy, apathy, and pretense in the church. I cringe at churchy language and religious manipulation. Yet I remain a firm believer that God loves all people equally and that Jesus is the best redeemer of cultures and religions—Christianity included. When Jesus is present in the church, something beautiful happens.

I spent my first week in southern Ghana where every business, every preacher, every crooked cop seems to tout some exaggerated form of Christianity. The culture is so anemically religious you could call it, “Ghana’s bible belt.” I hated it.

But in northern Ghana, where we’ve been spending the last week, the church is leaner and stronger. In a Muslim and Traditionalist context, Christians believe that the gospel is always pushing outward. They believe that the most natural environment for Christian faith isn’t in the Christian capitals of the world, but in the animistic villages and nomadic tribes. They spend less time building church empires and more time sharing the “good news”. And in a real sense that “good news” isn’t JUST a hope in heaven. It’s clean water. It’s education. It’s love-based development.

I know that sometimes, development can be used as a switcheroo for proselytizing, and these Ghanaians DO preach Christianity. But I sense that most of them actually believe that God loves all people—Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists—the same. So they work tirelessly in the villages, though it’s often a thankless job. And just being around them preaches to me.

After meeting with our Fulani friends the other day, we went to a village where a small hole in the ground serves as their water supply.
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Some years it sees them through the springtime droughts. Usually, they spend a couple months struggling to find water. A small brick reservoir built to catch the rain falling off the tin roof would see them through the dry season with clean, accessible water. It wouldn’t be expensive… a couple grand maybe. In 3 other villages, we noticed that the arrival of water projects ALSO brought small village schools—sometimes just a chalkboard under a mango tree… Suddenly I’m thinking… I could buy a new macbook. Or I could kick start a future for 40 kids.

I’m looking into the faces of these beautiful children and I’m seeing my own children—Annabel and Levi—and it ruins me. I’m thinking, “We had no right to be born in America. It was just dumb luck. These people aren’t CNN headlines, poverty statistics, or global problems. These are people. They are part of me and I’m part of them. How can I not care for them?”

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The exciting thing is, the church is loving them. For all of its issues, the church… Christians are responding in love. All over Northern Ghana, we saw the church (not government) at the forefront of development. Sometimes, projects are funded by NGO’s, but it’s Ghanaian Christians providing the manpower. It’s not benefitting them or their churches. They’re doing it just because.

In church-saturated cultures, I often feel embarrassed and alarmed by the church. But in northern Ghana, I feel proud to be a Christian, because the church is presently the most effective change agent in that region. And where the gospel is pushing out to the margins, good things are happening. We were told that the general perception among traditional villages is that Christianity brings development and that’s true for a number of reasons. One is a greater connectedness to the outside world, the Christian community, and to NGO’s. Another is that Christians spend less on alcohol and witch doctors. A sense of generosity, community, and universal human brotherhood is developed. (For instance the new Christians in one village report that their faith challenges them to live at peace with their Muslim neighbors and share resources with them.) Christianity shows up as a liberating force for women. And Christians are choosing healthier lifestyles overall.

So even the flagrant proselytizing doesn’t bother me (I say this not as an evangelist, but as a Christian cynic). In fact, it excites me, because I know that 1.) It comes from a loving heart and is not manipulative, underhanded, or neo-colonial. And 2.) Conversion has brought more hope and authentic transformation than I’ve ever seen in a community. It hasn’t culturally disenfranchised them. It’s culturally invigorated, redeemed, and united them. In one village, a group of children broke out in spontaneous song and dance with big grins on their faces. Our Ghanaian friend leaned over and said, “This song is popular in the villages. It means, ‘when I die, don’t ask the soothsayer what killed me because Jesus took me away.'”

In another village, an elder told us, “everybody in the world longs for progress. We see this as progress.” THAT’S something I can get behind.

Two Men

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“Before all this,” the elder said, waving his weathered hands to indicate the tin-roofed shelter, the makeshift school, the large brick reservoir, “We did not even consider ourselves human beings. Now, we consider ourselves to be human beings.” The people beneath the shelter seemed bright-eyed, healthy, even joyful. Dozens of kids for whom education was previously impossible are now learning their ABC’s. A little church meets under the shelter. And the whole village has ready access to clean drinking water. The community carries a sense of dignity and communal identity that I perceive did not exist a few years ago. “Not only are you human beings,” replied Ash quietly through the translator. “You are children of God.”

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So I was thinking… how does Young Leaders International, a tiny discipleship ministry focusing on a just 5 Ghanaian “coaches” bring clean water, spiritual transformation, and a communal sense of personhood to 3 villages in northern Ghana?

Here’s how I see it from an outsider’s perspective.

A few years ago, an American with a deep sense of God’s love came to Ghana to love young leaders. Not a lot of leaders. Just a few. He came without a lot of strategies and agendas, but a firm belief that love was the strongest stuff in the universe. It was a risky bet and not every leader received love. But a few did. They started visiting villages, praying for strangers in hospitals, showing practical love in their communities, and loving other young leaders.

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When one coach visited a village and saw the cesspool that served as their water supply, his love made him cry. So YLI raised $12,000 and bought materials for a new water system designed by Ghanaians and built by the villagers. Then they did the same for 2 more villages. Their activity attracted other aid groups who built schools, clinics, even a playground!

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The village elders believe they received God’s love in a very tangible way and they want to share that love with others. So independently, they’ve planted churches and share their water with the Fulani tribesmen in their area: nomadic Muslim cattle-herders known for banditry, murder, and trampling crops with their herds. The village of Kpenchila says the love of Christ has helped them live at peace with their Muslim neighbors. One local Imam has even asked them to plant a church in his area, seeing the good the Christians are doing.

I told one village how I learned about the Fulani in college and began to cry. God spoke to me then about His love for the Fulani and I began praying for them each day. Later I lived in a Fulani town in Guinea for a month. I knew I might see a few Fulani on this trip, but didn’t expect to see so many. Fulani settlements are interspersed between these 3 villages and I got to encourage them to keep loving the Fulani. I believe they will do just that. And if the nomadic Fulani receive God’s love, then… well I have my own ideas on that.

So that’s how love goes viral. Ash says, “I sometimes have my doubts, but one thing I’m always sure about is love.” Right.